“Creativity is a divine madness… a gift from the gods.” Plato
“People who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.” Sting
This mythology of madness as a fuel for creativity, or an inherent part of creative minds, continues to affect how we think of artists – and ourselves as creative people.
For example, psychiatrist and creativity author Albert Rothenberg MD commented that “Deviant behavior, whether in the form of eccentricity or worse, is not only associated with persons of genius or high-level creativity, but it is frequently expected of them.”
That is one of the dangers of this mythology: that we may consider ourselves “not crazy enough” to be creative, or that our mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression should be endured, in order to “protect” our creative power.
Musician Sting admits he bought in to the myth of the “tortured artist” for a long time:
“Do I have to be in pain to write? I thought so, as most of my contemporaries did; you had to be the struggling artist, the tortured, painful, poetic wreck.
“I tried that for a while, and to a certain extent that was successful. I was ‘The King of Pain’ after all. I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.”
Read more of his quotes, and other creative people including actors Colin Farrell, Joel Kinnaman (TV series “The Killing”), Maggie Gyllenhaal and more, plus psychologist Cheryl Arutt, in my article Pain and suffering and developing creativity.
Are creative people more likely to have mental health issues?
Video: interview with Shelley Carson. The interviewer amusingly says to Carson: “One of your academic focuses is on the connections between psychopathology and creativity – the term psychopathology sounds like a disease I don’t want to catch.”
Shelley Carson, Ph.D. of Harvard University teaches and conducts research on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience. Also hear my audio interview with her: Shelley Carson on enhancing our creative brain.
Her book: “Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.”
Creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton, PhD notes, “Few creative individuals can be considered truly mentally ill. Indeed, outright disorder usually inhibits rather than helps creative expression. Furthermore, a large proportion of creators exhibit no symptoms, at least not to any measurable degree.”
But Professor Steven James Bartlett, referring to the work of psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, writes: “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that, compared to ‘normal’ individuals, artists, writers, and creative people in general, are both psychologically ‘sicker’ – that is, they score higher on a wide variety of measures of psychopathology – and psychologically healthier (for example, they show quite elevated scores on measures of self-confidence and ego strength).”
(From his paper The Abnormal Psychology of Creativity and the Pathology of Normality.)
The photo is Russell Crowe as brilliant mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. in the movie “A Beautiful Mind.”
Sylvia Nasar in her bio refers to someone asking Nash, who suffered with delusions, how he could believe that extraterrestrials were sending him messages or that he was being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world.
“Because,” Nash said, “the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
From my article Creativity and madness: High ability and mental health.
In his book “Creativity for Life”, psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD explains:
“The individual with the childhood history, personality, identity, aspirations, and inner makeup of the artist almost certainly is at greater risk of going mad than the next person.
“For whatever else it may be, madness is, in significant measure, a kind of intense acting-in, a departure from everyday reality to the battlefield of a stormy inner reality.
“The artist, self-absorbed, intense, and thriving on her inner life, regularly lives closer to such a departure than do her less introverted, less imaginative and less agitated brothers and sisters.”
But others disagree. Psychologist Judith Schlesinger, for example, has declared the ‘mad genius’ myth to be “hogwash” without valid research support.
Her book on the topic is “The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius.”
She comments, “A careful look at the so-called “landmark” studies in the field—the work by psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig, and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison—reveals gaping holes in their design, methodologies, and conclusions.”
Read more in my article: Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy?
This is also addressed by cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, who writes:
“The romantic notion that mental illness and creativity are linked is so prominent in the public consciousness that it is rarely challenged.
“So before I continue, let me nip this in the bud: Mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity.
“The oft-cited studies by Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwig showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized on the grounds that they involve small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.
“To be sure, research does show that many eminent creators – particularly in the arts – had harsh early life experiences (such as social rejection, parental loss, or physical disability) and mental and emotional instability. However, this does not mean that mental illness was a contributing factor to their eminence.”
From his article The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness.
Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD is editor, author or co-author of multiple books including:
The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice.
The Psychology of Creative Writing.
Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.
Different kinds of “crazy”
Therapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel notes “Anxiety is the great silencer of the creative person.” Read more in my article: Eric Maisel on anxiety and developing creativity.
In his online course Why Smart People Hurt, he explores some of the challenges of high ability and creative people, such as:
* How distressing states like mania, insomnia, and unproductive obsessing are the natural consequences of a good mind gone racing.
* The ways in which our families, schools, churches, work situations, media, and other social and cultural institutions dumb us down.
* The challenges of dealing with more depression and more anxiety than the next person.
Thriving and healthy to be more creative
Clinical psychologist Cheryl Arutt thinks most forms of mental illness “can be traced to some form of emotional dysregulation, either over-control or under-control.”
She urges creative people to “allow permission to be thriving and healthy.
“To be able to go out and dare to write or embody all that the artist wants to do, really starts with learning how to settle down” and quiet the mind and body.
“The sensitivity and the ability to go there, to create – wherever ‘there’ may be – is a gift and a talent. But getting stuck there is no fun for anyone, and is not required in order to do good work. If you can take good care of yourself, and then visit there, everybody wins.”
Read more and hear my audio interview with her in article Creative People and Mental Health.
[Note – This is updated from a post first published June 10, 2010.]
More articles :
Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, By Maureen Neihart, Psy.D.
Neseret Bemient thinks trauma underlies many, even most, psychiatric diagnoses.
She hosted the Mental Health Telesummit [MP3 recordings available]:
“Our speakers have done the work necessary to heal their own lives…They are absolutely passionate about sharing with you the real scoop on how they did it and how you can do the same!”
See videos with her, and a list of many resources, in my article Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health – including these: